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The epiphanic moment of the lathi charge

January 2, 2013

At the Khan Market Metro station

The girl wasn’t aware that the Udyog Bhavan Metro station in central Delhi had been shut down. In the Metro going to Gurgaon, she needed to get down at Udyog Bhavan. Her friend was waiting in a car outside the station. She waited at the door. The train stopped too, but the gates didn’t open. The PA system — the annoying PA system of the Delhi Metro that never stops saying something or the other — – fell silent. The station was deserted. Not a soul in sight.

The girl asked fellow passengers — all of us men around her — which would be the nearest station that would be open. All the options were far off. Ramakrishna Ashram station on one end, for instance, was four kms. away. “Now what?” the girl asked her friend on the phone in a tone that blamed him, in a way only lovers can. “Now what?” she kept repeating.

When passengers don’t know something about the Metro — like getting on to the wrong train, for instance — other passengers teach them the lines and the stations patronisingly, rubbing in your mistake and telling you with their tone that you are a fool. In this case, however, the tone, the silence, the looks suggested something else. There was a sense of resignation in the air, as if to say we’ve all been taken fora ride by the Government of India.

In the minute or so that the Metro stood still at an empty station, I thought the PA system would say anything, any moment now. It didn’t. As if it shared our resentment. The loud emptiness of the station told me my government feared me, distrusted me, even hated me.

I change the line at Central Secretariat, to take the Violet one that will take me home. You can change lines in Central Secretariat but can’t get out of the station. The Government of India feels like Hotel California: you can checkout but never leave.

The next station is Khan Market, also shut. I expect some more eerie silence but hey, there are people at the station, the doors open. People from Khan Market can get in but we can’t get out! The PA system says in a sarkari tone (as opposed to the professional, pre-recorded ones), “Dew two sickurity rejuns, Khaan Markit stashun is klosed. Suraksha karnon se…” There, they said it. I am a ‘security reason’. Like those terrorists. Those terrorists the police can never find, so they pick up random young Muslim men and falsely frame them.

In the initial phase they shut down Metro stations but you could take an auto or a taxi or drive your car or bike to central Delhi. It was as if the nanny State was telling you: we have given you this nice Metro, you can go long distances easily, don’t misuse it! Don’t protest against us! Don’t bite the hand that feeds you! Be nice to the mai-baap government!

The Metro is the pride of Delhi, and has among other things made more accessible various parts of the New Delhi district — not designed for commoners, only for the sahibs of the British Raj. The Raj that continues with its colonial Indian Penal Code obsessed with ‘maintaining law and order’. Ever wondered what order means when spoken with the law? It means go to office, go to the cinema, go meet your friends, but don’t speak against the government. That would be disorder.

The Metro is not free of sexual harassment, but is still the safest mode of public transport in Delhi. The Metro is making distant for large numbers of people the memory of the bus system of Delhi, which for many women was never an option. The buses would be so crowded with men that it was a given that if a woman boarded it she would be groped, if not worse. Now, the government that gave us the Metro was mocking at this girl who used it without fear, as if to say, “Now what?’

*

When the gang-rape survivor died they cordoned off the centre of central Delhi from all traffic. An undeclared curfew. On those wide tree-lined roads, the winter sun shone sharply as barricades manned by policemen taunted the people who couldn’t get past them. Try climbing one and they will shoot a tear gas shell and the home minister will say protesters should stay non-violent!

A part of me was happy with these big yellow-painted barricades that trucks were moving around. It’s only appropriate that instead of putting people in jail as it could and has done in that era called the Emergency, the government was preferring to lock itself up. The Union of India was reduced a pathetic few square kilometres, shutting out the people of India! Strangely, we felt locked out when we should have been feeling free.

This was only the least of it. Earlier, on Saturday the 22nd and Sunday the 23rd of December, the police lathi-charged protesters. The colonial term lathi charge does not fully evoke what it is like and what it means when your police on the orders of your government beats you with bamboo sticks. That moment can be a moment of epiphany: you suddenly realise the police is not your police anymore, it is not for your protection but for the protection of the government. In other words, your government isn’t yours anymore.

I wasn’t there at Raisina Hill or India Gate on those days but several eye-witness accounts speak of the surprise the people felt when the Rapid Action Force moved into groups of protestors who were sitting on the road, and the government and the media justified the action by pointing to stray incidents of stone-pelting.

Who these stone-pelters were, who these young people were who tried to cross the barricades, I don’t know. The conspiracy theory on Twitter and elsewhere is that they were Congress storm-troopers out to discredit the protest. Even if that is not true, you certainly wonder why the tear-gas shells and the water cannons and the bamboo batons were directed at people who were just sitting and singing songs and discussing how to make the city safer for women.

Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
– Bertolt Brecht

*

You have to be either extremely naive or a Congress party member or both to say that despite such police action, we should believe the government means its sympathies for the girl now dead, that it means its promises to make the city safer for women. Do you really think the Government of India cares if a 23 year old lives or dies? If it did they wouldn’t randomly shift her to Singapore without asking her doctors if that is needed. The government was more interested in PR strategies than in saving the girl’s life.

So insensitive is the government and its ‘law and order’ machinery that, as the Indian Express reported, the police even tried to interfere in the magistrate’s recording of the girl’s statement. Why? What did they want to hide? At the time they had caught only three of the accused so they wanted it recorded that rape was committed only by those three, and not the other three. That even in a case as high-profile as this the police had the gall to do this, is some indication about how much you can trust the police if your grievance isn’t top news.

The police kills ordinary, innocent people so often that it can’t be top news. In September 2012, in Delhi’s Khoda Colony, a drunk cop beat a pillion-rider at a checkpost and he died. The police lathi-charged the resulting protests by the people and detained the family of the deceased when the post-mortem was going on, hid the bullet removed by the doctors. The Indian Express recently reported that Delhi police managed to get a magisterial inquiry in the case scuttled despite intervention by the National Human Rights Commission.

Another Indian dead for ‘law and order’. Justice will have to wait till the next life.

Not that the government cares for the life of a policeman or a soldier either. If they did, they wouldn’t cynically exploit the death by cardiac arrest of a police constable to blame it on ‘violence’ by protesters. The dirty tricks department of the Manmohan Singh government was so excited by the opportunity that the death of a police constable presented that they decided to kill two birds with one stone, booking a lowly member of the Aam Aadmi Party so they could discredit Arvind Kejriwal in the bargain as well.

By now we should know that the Government of India couldn’t care less for the Indian Constitution’s promise of the right to life and liberty. We don’t have to visit Kashmir or Chhattisgarh or Manipur to understand this. We saw this as recently as September 2011 when police killed a woman, Raj Bala, at the Baba Ramdev agitation demanding a Lokpal in September 2011. The headline writers are adept in such situations in making murder sound like accident: woman dies in police action, they will say. Even the Supreme Court of India sounded so mild in its criticism: ‘It is a glaring example of trust deficit between the people governing and the people being governed,’ the honourable lordships said.

It does not matter here whether or not you support Baba Ramdev and whether or not you think public anger against the government is justified for a problem like rape, born out of society’s own misogynist attitude towards women. It does not matter whether you dislike the protesters who demand death penalty for rapists and whether you like the protesters who came from left-wing organisations. In a democracy there must be varied voices on the street demanding this or that.

Farmers demand a hike in the minimum support price? Shoot them dead. Gujjars demand reservations? Shoot them dead. Video journalist shooting police action against anti-rape protests in Manipur? Shoot him dead. Here is just a short list of the more prominent cases of police brutality.

It is not a nice feeling, the feeling that your government isn’t yours. In Delhi this December, we understood how many others from Kashmir to Koodankulam have long felt. Happy New Year.

There is an urgent need to save democracy from the Indian State, to explain to Raisina Hill that there was a reason we got rid of colonial rule in 1947. Or did we?

(First published in Rediff.)

Photo: Chandan Gomes

Photo: Chandan Gomes

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2013 1:45 PM

    Why does a (democratic) state assume grotesque,virulent forms today? (preoccupation with sheer demographics and crowd CONTROL?). The idea seems to be: to assert a normality and to get on with ‘regular’ business (‘we’re looking into it’/doing what we can’…, denying legitimacy to protest and genuine social movements). ‘Stray’ incident/s of death seem to be regrettable but may be unavoidable from this point of view. After all there are imagined multitudes whose survival needs to be protected, international embarassments avoided (all those investments), ‘untoward’ social change stemmed

    Ready for the next accumulation at minimal human cost_ the utilitarian argument of the greater good turned against justice and human life (against a denominator of 1 billion). Colonialism also took pride in ‘efficient’ repression against perceived ‘surmountable’ odds/obstacles in its path (‘this is how we do it’ today)

  2. Rahul Saini permalink
    January 2, 2013 3:49 PM

    a very good article . says it all.

  3. Anand permalink
    January 2, 2013 10:48 PM

    This government is using the Police in a cold and calculated manner, against the common citizens. Expect a large scale version of Rang De Basanti massacre to play out, if there are one or two similar protests.

  4. January 12, 2013 4:52 PM

    I am 21 years old … I mention my age because I want you to know that I am not an old bureaucratic fart … I am a young idealistic university student … and I can’t help but think that this cliche’d rhetoric of “fighting against an oppressive government” is simply immature, naive and irresponsible. People have this strange desire to seem like a revolutionary (so that they don’t have to do any real reform or introspection) and for that reason they completely ignore all rationality, indulge in mindless protests (mindless because of the complete lack of self reflection on part of the protesters) which inevitably get violent (not because the congress sent its goons but because the protests were from their very beginning an expression of immaturity) and then when the government tries to prevent the situation from going completely out of control, blaming them for not allowing you to create chaos. The idea that the government should have just let a huge crowd of possible stone pelters roam around in central areas of Delhi completely ignoring the risk and danger that they pose to themselves and others is just the biggest piece of absurdity and naivete I have ever heard.

    As a young idealistic student I am disappointed and extremely saddened by the level of immaturity with which people of my generation and others (especially journalists) have responded to the incident of the gang rape.

    I cant imagine how you are conceptualizing this problem and what is your solution? Do you want to throw away the governmental structure ? Do you want all existing politicians to retire and get new ones? From where ? Are you suggesting that democracy itself is flawed and cannot accommodate public opinion ? DO you think India is a sham democracy ? If so, why do you think so ? Are the elections rigged ?

    Ideally you should have included answers to the above questions in your article but please be kind enough to answer them now.

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  1. Would it not be… | pontify

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